The Fierce Urgency of Shame

Last week’s decision by the Air Force to spend up to $100 billion over the next 30 years on an airborne fuel tanker built by a partnership of Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) – rather than by Boeing – offers a teachable moment about an ugly, age-old truth regarding American politics. To wit, well organized political constituencies – and the politicians that cater to them – are perfectly willing to rip off the country for a buck and a vote.

The United States Air Force reports that the Airbus airborne fuel tanker outperforms the Boeing airborne fuel tanker on all five relevant selection criteria. So the issue is quite simple: Should the Air Force buy the best plane possible for the United States military, or should the Air Force buy the best plane possible for some politically well-connected investors and workers and force the military to operate sub-optimal weapons systems as a consequence?

The fact that well organized interest groups – namely, Boeing Corporation and the workers that would be employed by the tanker contract – are unconcerned with the injury they would do to both U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military in the course of making a few extra bucks should not surprise. It’s a story that could be retold dozens of times over. The fact that Boeing and the workers associated with Boeing wrap themselves up in patriotic garb in the course of hobbling America’s military abroad is what truly grates.

I don’t know whether the military really needs a new airborne fuel tanker, whether a new airborne fuel tanker is a good buy for the taxpayer, or whether the Airbus model really outperforms the Boeing model (and given the track record of military procurement bureaucracies, it’s not unimaginable that the Air Force might have gotten this wrong). I do know, however, that if the military is going to buy one, its decision about what model to buy ought to be based on pure, unadulterated merit – leavened by a concern for getting the best performance bang for the contract buck given the limited resources of the American taxpayer.

Any other consideration forced on the military is a raw declaration that our military’s fighting power should suffer for somebody’s pay check. Those making that argument while boasting about their love for country ought to be deeply ashamed.

Note to the idealists: Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed opposition to the Air Force decision. Now, either they know something about the technical details of the Airbus and Boeing airborne tankers that has escaped the Air Force’s attention, or the promise of a “new politics” is as empty as one might expect.